Matthew 16:24

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his σταυρὸν and follow me.

Hebrews 12:2

looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the σταυρὸν, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

I'm currently studying the New World Translation written by the Jehovah's Witnesses and they claim that the Greek word for cross can be translated as 'Torture stake'. Is this correct? If this is the case, is there anything beside the scripture that implies the object was indeed a cross?


Torture stake. The rendering of the Greek word stau·rosʹ, meaning an upright stake or pole, such as the one on which Jesus was executed. There is no evidence that the Greek word meant a cross, such as the pagans used as a religious symbol for many centuries before Christ. “Torture stake” conveys the full intent of the original word, since Jesus also used the word stau·rosʹ to indicate the torture, suffering, and shame that his followers would face. (Mt 16:24; Heb 12:2)—See STAKE. https://www.jw.org/en/publications/bible/nwt/books/luke/23/


6 Answers 6


This translation claim by the Jehovah's Witnesses likely comes from entries in the Greek-English lexicons such as Thayers, which list the meaning as:

1) an upright stake, esp. a pointed one or
2) a cross

In most regards, these can actually be thought of as synonymous for a couple of reasons. First, many believe that crucifixion actually originated with the Assyrian empire. It was a favorite tactic of the Assyrians to impale victims en mass alive on poles outside of a fortified city they wished to conquer as a means of psychological warfare. The victims' screams were used to convince the target city that it would be better to surrender and avoid the same fate than to face the Assyrian empire.

Assyrian Psychological Warfare

Later, crucifixion began being used by the Persians in a manner more similar to the crucifixion of Christ. This persisted among several major cultures until it was picked up and used by Alexander the Great against the Phoenicians The major difference in early usage of this torture method by the Persians and others was that this was often done on a stake or tree without the use of a cross-member (or "patibulum"). This type of cross is known as a crux simplex and is the primary reason σταυρός can be translated as an upright stake.

The Torment of MarsyasFulda Hermann - "Das Kreuz und die Kreuzigung" (1878)

Another reason this may be referred to as an upright stake has to do with exactly how crucifixions happened in the Roman Empire. There is actually some thought within scholarship that Jesus may have been hung on a Tau Cross.

Tau Cross

In the Roman Empire, when a specific place was used for crucifixion, they would typically bury a pole in the ground which was then used repeatedly. Installing a new cross on the hill of Golgotha each time another crucifixion was taking place was simply too troublesome. Instead, after each body was taken down, the patibulum only was removed and the main part of the cross - a stake - would be left behind. When a crucifixion occurred, the prisoner would be forced to carry only their patibulum (the cross-member), not the entire cross. This would then be either nailed to the stake left behind after each crucifixion or set on top of and nailed down into the top of the stake depending on if it was a Tau cross or a cross like that which is depicted in most Christian iconography. For obvious reasons, it was easier to nail a patibulum (with victim already attached) to the stake using a tau cross which accounts for its popularity with the Romans (this was actually the most widely used type of cross by the Roman Empire) It is therefore not wholly inappropriate to think of σταυρὸν as referring to the buried stake left behind after a crucifixion was completed.

As you can see from this brief history, when σταυρὸν is used in the context of torture, there really is no difference between "stake" or "cross". These refer to the same method of torture. While this could be meaningful if σταυρὸν was being used in the context of gardening for example, it is doubtful that that there is any meaningful difference in the context in which you are discussing it. For the sake of clarity to modern readers, it seems then that the most clear meaning would be "cross" as most laypersons probably do not know the history and methods of crucifixion and would be unable to understand that a "buried stake" and a cross are essentially the same thing in the context of torture. This rendering would be unnecessarily confusing to modern readers and over-literal.

  • 1
    Thanks @SteveTaylor - I must have been hungry when I wrote this. Commented Mar 30, 2017 at 15:21
  • 2
    Everyone makes misteaks!
    – Steve can help
    Commented Mar 30, 2017 at 15:31

While I think that the claim that σταυρός referred to a simple upright stake is supported in the ancient Greek literature, there is not support for a claim that this same meaning applied exclusively during the time of Christ.

The use of the word to refer to a simple stake can be found in the Odyssey, the Iliad, Thucydides' The Peloponnesian War, and Xenophon's Anabasis. All of these works date from 354 BC or earlier. Both Thucydides and Herodotus (5th c. BC) also the word in the sense of "piles" to serve as a foundation.

Descriptions of σταυρός as a "cross", as we understand it, however, emerged sometime in the century prior to Christ or earlier, in the writings of Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian living in Sicily. Beyond the overwhelming corpus of the early Church Fathers, we also have the Alexamenos graffito, which is apparently a caricature of Christians worshipping a donkey on a cross.

I am speculating here, but it may be that when the Hellenic cultures first encountered the Roman torture instrument we call the "cross", the closest word in Greek to describe it was σταυρός. The beginning of the use of the word σταυρός in this context seems to have coincided with the Roman conquest of the Hellenic world. If this were not the case, then we would expect to see some other word in the Greek vocabulary emerge to describe it.


Matthew 16:24 (KJV)

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

The word cross used here in Greek from Scriveners Textus Receptus is σταυρός, οῦ, ὁ, stauron, stavron or stauros and means crucifix or a cross.

The extra-biblical support is found in several places supporting a cross. Here are a couple examples;

Josephus in Jewish Antiquities, Book 18.3 §3 writes

And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him;

Josephus tells us in Book 3.7 §19 of The Jewish War the very nature of a cross

and braced by strong beams that pass on both sides of it, in the nature of a cross

This word he uses over 20 times to describe crucifixions carried out by the Romans against Jesus and hundreds of other Jews.

Tacitus in Annals, Book 15.44 writes

Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.

Biblical accounts of a cross are strongly supported by historical writings.

  • 2
    This response only indicates that the Greek word σταυρός is used, and that the word is traditionally translated as 'cross'. This information is already assumed by the question, which is if 'cross' is necessarily the best translation, rather than a 'stake'. I think a solid answer ought to address why σταυρός is translated as 'cross', at least in regards to the new testament.
    – user2910
    Commented Mar 29, 2017 at 22:17
  • @Mark Edward, fortunately that's not the case. Josephus wrote extensively about the Roman's use of crosses for the Jews. "and braced by strong beams that pass on both sides of it, in the nature of a cross" chapter 7 verse 19 'The Jewish War'. This is the word he used over 20 times to describe crucifixions of Jesus and the Jews.
    – N.Ish
    Commented Mar 30, 2017 at 17:17
  • "and braced by strong beams that pass on both sides of it, in the nature of a cross" is describing a battering ram. "in the nature of a σταυρός" should be translated as "in the nature of an upright supporting post". Translating it as "cross" doesn't make sense (except to someone that traditionally always translates "σταυρός" as "cross"). Similarly there is nothing in this entire answer that couldn't have the word "cross" translated as "post" or "stake". Nothing suggests a cross-like shape. Commented Mar 6, 2019 at 14:24


Luke, Peter, and Paul used XY'LON as a synonym for stau·rosʹ gives added proof that Jesus was killed on an upright pole or stake without a crossbeam, for that is what xyʹlon in this special sense means. (See Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Gal. 3:13; 1 Pet. 2:24) Xyʹlon also occurs in the Greek Septuagint (see below) where it refers to a single beam or timber or pole on which a lawbreaker was to be executed.

Look up the Greek words for "Stake" etc. in the Septuagint (LXX) and you will see "stau·ros"

The following are a sett of Tests for you to start with from the NWT:-

Genesis 40:19 "In three days from now Phar'aoh will lift up your head from off you and will certainly hang you upon a stake [LXX xyʹlon "tree"-Benton]; and the fowls will certainly eat your flesh from off you.”

Joshua 8:29 "And he hanged the king of A'i upon a stake [LXX xyʹlon "gallows"-Benton] until the evening time; and as the sun was about to set Joshua gave the command, and then they took his dead body down from the stake [LXX xyʹlon "tree"-Benton] and pitched it at the entrance of the gate of the city and raised up a great pile of stones over him, down to this day."

Joshua 10:26-27 "And after that Joshua proceeded to strike them and put them to death and hang them upon five stakes [LXX xyʹlon "tree"-Benton], and they continued hanging upon the stakes [LXX xyʹlon "tree"-Benton] until the evening. 27 And it came about that at the time of the setting of the sun Joshua commanded, and they went taking them down off the stakes [LXX xyʹlon "tree"-Benton] and throwing them into the cave where they had hid themselves. Then they placed big stones at the mouth of the cave—until this very day."

Esther 2:23 "So the matter was sought out and eventually found out, and both of them got to be hanged on a stake [LXX xyʹlon]; after which it was written in the book of the affairs of the days before the king."

Esther 5:14 "At that Ze'resh his wife and all his friends said to him: “Let them make a stake [LXX xyʹlon"gallows"-Benton] fifty cubits high. Then in the morning say to the king that they should hang Mor'de•cai on it. Then go in with the king to the banquet joyful.” So the thing seemed good before Ha'man, and he proceeded to have the stake [LXX xy'lon, "gallows"-Benton made."

Esther 6:4 "Later the king said: “Who is in the courtyard?” Now Ha'man himself had come into the outer courtyard of the king’s house to say to the king to hang Mor'de•cai on the stake [LXX xyʹlon "gallows"-Benton] that he had prepared for him."

Esther 7:9-10 "Har•bo'na, one of the court officials before the king, now said: “Also, there is the stake [LXX xyʹlon "gallows"-Benton] that Ha'man made for Mor'de•cai, who had spoken good concerning the king, standing in Ha'man’s house— [LXX xy'lon adds "and a gallows of"] fifty cubits high.” At that the king said: “YOU men, hang him on it.” 10 And they proceeded to hang Ha'man on the stake [LXX xy'lon "gallows"-Benton] that he had prepared for Mor'de•cai; and the king’s rage itself subsided.2

Deuteronomy 16:21 “You must not plant for yourself any sort of tree [LXX xyʹlon "tree"-Benton] as a sacred pole* near the altar of Jehovah your God that you will make for yourself. *(ftn) nwt Or, “as an Asherah.”


Matthew 26:47 And while he was yet speaking, look! Judas, one of the twelve, came and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs [stau·ros] from the chief priests and older men of the people.

Matthew 26:55 In that hour Jesus said to the crowds: “Have YOU come out with swords and clubs [stau·ros] as against a robber to arrest me?

Mark 14:43 And immediately, while he was yet speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived and with him a crowd with swords and clubs [stau·ros] from the chief priests and the scribes and the older men. Mark 14:48 But in response Jesus said to them: “Did YOU come out with swords and clubs [stau·ros as against a robber to arrest me?

Luke 22:52 Jesus then said to the chief priests and captains of the temple and older men that had come there for him: “Did YOU come out with swords and clubs [stau·ros]as against a robber?

Footnotes Matthew 10:38 “Torture stake.” Gr., staur¬n (stau•ron'); Lat., cru'cem (from crux). See App 5C. Matthew 23:34 Or, “fasten on a stake (pole).” See App 5C.

2 Corinthians 12:7 Or, “pointed stake.”

2 Corinthians 13:4 Or, “fastened on a stake (pole).” See App 5C.

The book The Non-Christian Cross, by John Denham Parsons, states: “There is not a single sentence in any of the numerous writings forming the New Testament, which, in the original Greek, bears even indirect evidence to the effect that the stauros used in the case of Jesus was other than an ordinary stauros; much less to the effect that it consisted, not of one piece of timber, but of two pieces nailed together in the form of a cross. . . . it is not a little misleading upon the part of our teachers to translate the word stauros as ‘cross’ when rendering the Greek documents of the Church into our native tongue, and to support that action by putting ‘cross’ in our lexicons as the meaning of stauros without carefully explaining that that was at any rate not the primary meaning of the word in the days of the Apostles, did not become its primary signification till long afterwards, and became so then, if at all, only because, despite the absence of corroborative evidence, it was for some reason or other assumed that the particular stauros upon which Jesus was executed had that particular shape.”—London, 1896, pp. 23, 24.


"Cross, Crucify: denotes, primarily, "an upright pale or stake." On such malefactors were nailed for execution. Both the noun and the verb stauroo, "to fasten to a stake or pale," are originally to be distinguished from the ecclesiastical form of a two beamed "cross." The shape of the latter had its origin in ancient Chaldea, and was used as the symbol of the god Tammuz (being in the shape of the mystic Tau, the initial of his name) in that country and in adjacent lands, including Egypt. By the middle of the 3rd cent. A.D. the churches had either departed from, or had travestied, certain doctrines of the Christian faith. In order to increase the prestige of the apostate ecclesiastical system pagans were received into the churches apart from regeneration by faith, and were permitted largely to retain their pagan signs and symbols. Hence the Tau or T, in its most frequent form, with the cross-piece lowered, was adopted to stand for the "cross" of Christ.

As for the Chi, or X, which Constantine declared he had seen in a vision leading him to champion the Christian faith, that letter was the initial of the word "Christ" and had nothing to do with "the Cross" (for xulon, "a timber beam, a tree," as used for the stauros, see under TREE).

The method of execution was borrowed by the Greeks and Romans from the Phoenicians. The stauros denotes

(a) "the cross, or stake itself," e.g., Mat 27:32;

(b) "the crucifixion suffered," e.g., 1Cr 1:17, 18, where "the word of the cross," RV, stands for the Gospel; Gal 5:11, where crucifixion is metaphorically used of the renunciation of the world, that characterizes the true Christian life; Gal 6:12, 14; Eph 2:16; Phl 3:18.

The judicial custom by which the condemned person carried his stake to the place of execution, was applied by the Lord to those sufferings by which His faithful followers were to express their fellowship with Him, e.g., Mat 10:38."-https://www.blueletterbible.org/search/Dictionary/viewTopic.cfm?topic=VT0000616

I can get lots more on this for you if you like, but hope this helps for now.


Extra-Biblical Evidence
The three meanings of σταυρός (stauros) are cross, crucifixion, or stake. Literally it is possible to place Jesus on either the traditional cross or a stake. When used as "stake" it especially meant a pointed one (consistent with "impalement"). In the Appendix of the New World Translation (NWT), an explanation for the decision to translate the word as "torture stake" is given. It begins with:

Matthew 10:38 - 'Torture Stake'
This is the expression used in connection with the execution of Jesus at Calvary. There is no evidence that the Greek word stau-ros' meant here a "cross" such as the pagans used as a religious symbol for many centuries before Christ to denote the sun-god.

In the classical Greek the word stau-ros' meant merely an upright stake or pale , or pile such as used for a foundation. The verb stau-ro'o meant to fence with pales, to form a stockade or palisade, and this is the verb used when the mob called for Jesus to be impaled. To such a stake or pale the person to be punished was fastened, just as when the popular Greek hero Pro-me'the-us was represented as tied to a stake or stau-ros. The Greek word which the dramatist Aes'chy-lus used to describe this means to fasten or fix on a pole or stake, to impale, and the Greek author Lucian used a-na-stau-ro'o as a synonym for that word. In the Christian Greek Scriptures a-na-stau-ro'o occurs but once,at Hebrews 6:6. The root verb stau-ro'o occurs more than 40 times, and we have rendered it "impale," with the footnote :"Or, 'fasten on a stake or pole.'"1

A copy of the picture, "Crux simplex" by Justus Lipsius, which depicts this manner of execution is included:2 enter image description here Lipsius' rendering made in 1594 CE, is a poor example. It fails to show the message above Jesus head (Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19). Nor is Jesus "impaled" as the Assyrians practiced (see picture in James Shewey's answer).

The linguistic position of the NWT has validity. The extra-Biblical writings of Josephus and Seneca the Younger state crucifixions were carried out using different types of crosses:

So the soldiers, out of the wrath and hatred they bore the Jews, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another, to the crosses, by way of jest, when their multitude was so great, that room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses wanting for the bodies.3

I see before me crosses not all alike, but differently made by different peoples: some hang a man head downwards, some force a stick upwards through his groin, some stretch out his arms on a forked gibbet. I see cords, scourges, and instruments of torture for each limb and each joint: but I see Death also.4

Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) is believed to have written the Consolation to Marcia around 40 CE, shortly after Jesus' crucifixion.5 At the time he was in Rome and likely he is describing practices there. However, if crucifixions were carried out using different crosses in Rome, there is no reason to doubt this practice at that time elsewhere in the Empire. Using different types of crosses is evidence the NWT may be correct. At the same time it contradicts their assertion the text must be rigidly understood to mean there was only one way the word can be understood.

The most compelling extra-Biblical evidence against a torture stake is the Alexamenos graffito, a drawing discovered in Rome in 1857. It is graffiti mocking Alexamenos worshiping a god:

enter image description here The dating of the drawing, "ranging from the late 1st to the late 3rd century have been suggested, with the beginning of the 3rd century thought to be the most likely"6shows how a non-Christian understood what the Christian believed. The picture mocks a Christian (Alexamenos) who worships a god crucified with arms outstretched. This graffiti is at odds with several NWT positions:

  • Jesus was impaled on a stake
  • The one crucified was not worshiped
  • The one crucified was not considered a god

The graffiti does support one of the primary assertions of the NWT: crosses were not used by the early Christians as they are today:

De Rossi positively states that no monogram of Christ, discovered in the catacombs of other places, can be traced to a period anterior to the year 312. Even after that epoch-making year, the church, then free and triumphant, contented herself with having a simple monogram of Christ: the Greek letter chi vertically crossed by a sho, and horizontally sometimes by an iota [see chi rho iota image below]. The oldest crucifix mentioned as an object of public worship is the one venerated in the Church of Narbonne in southern France, as early as the 6th century.7

The NWT translation philosophy is consistent with a prohibition of pagan practices such as using the "cross" in worship or as jewelry (which may be an accurate understanding of early Christianity). Translating the word as "stake" eliminates these practices.

Manuscript Evidence
Christian scribes would sometimes use abbreviations. One was the staurogram, which is found in very early New Testament manuscripts such as P66, P45 and P75:

enter image description here

As Larry Hurtado writes:

The tau-rho device may have been appropriated by Christians originally, not (or not simply) on the basis of numerical symbolism, but because it could function as a visual reference to the crucified Jesus. This is not an original suggestion, but was proposed previously, notably by K. Aland and then supported strongly by E. Dinkler.51 In this proposal, the tau-rho device was appropriated initially because it could serve as a stylized reference to (and representation of ) Jesus on the cross. The tau is confirmed as an early symbol of the cross, and the loop of the superimposed rho in the tau-rho suggested the head of a crucified figure. This very simple pictogram reference to the crucifixion of Jesus fits with the simplicity and lack of decorative detail that characterizes earliest Christian art.8

Here are two conclusions from using a symbol to represent either the Crucifixion or Christ when making a copy of a New Testament document:

  1. It conveys a visual understanding objectively with no implication of pagan idolatry.
  2. It is an additional way the copyist’s vorlage can be interpreted.

While the word itself carries two possible meanings, the image shows one, the cross. Manuscript P75 (Papyrus 75) is dated as early as 175 CE and uses a staurogram in Luke 14:27:

Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. (ESV)

Using the staurogram means this copyist intends a reader to understand Luke's σταυρὸν is a cross.

Biblical Evidence
One account of the crucifixion provides additional details:

The the Jews, since it was Preparation, in order that the bodies might not remain upon the torture stakes on the Sabbath, (for the day of that Sabbath was a great one,) requested Pilate to have their legs broken and the [bodies] taken away. The soldiers came, therefore, and broke the legs of the first [man] and those of the other [man] that had been impaled with him. But on coming to Jesus, as they saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Yet one of the soldiers jabbed his side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. (John 19:31-34 NWT)

To speed up death in crucifixion, the legs were broken (crurifragium). This detail and the motives for the request make two points:

  • The Jews wanted all three men to specifically die by crucifixion. If death was the only objective, the request would have been to kill by the spear to bring about immediate death.
  • Legs were integral to crucifixion: unbroken legs delayed and broken legs hastened death.

The knowledge broken legs brought death quickly is consistent with death by asphyxiation, either directly or in conjunction with other factors like hypovolemic shock. The legs were broken in order to prevent the victim from using them to "push or raise up" to breathe.

There is an exercise to demonstrate the issue. Pull ups done with the arms spread wide are more difficult than with hands close together. If the grip is too wide, the shoulders will be damaged. Breaking the legs of someone being crucified means the body is then supported by the shoulders. If the hands are over directly overhead as they must be on a "torture stake" the shoulders are affected much less than if the arms are outstretched. In fact, breaking the legs of someone hanging with outstretched arms, will undoubtedly cause immediate damage to the shoulders rendering the victim completely unable to raise up to breathe.

Jesus was not stoned according to Jewish law. He died by means of Roman execution. Thus the Gospel narratives should be approached as descriptions of a Roman practice, not something faithful to Greek mythology, as the NWT suggests. There is evidence different types of crosses were used, but, in addition to tradition, abbreviations in manuscripts, graffiti mocking Christians, and the breaking of legs all support crucifixion with arms stretched wide on a cross.

1. New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., Third Revision With Footnotes 1971, 1981, p. 1360.
2. Ibid., p. 1361
3. Flavius Josephus, The Judean War, Book 5, Whiston Chapter 11, Whiston Section 1
4. Seneca, Of Consolation: To Marcia, Section XX
5. Seneca's Consolations
6. Alexamenos graffito
7. New World Translation, pp. 1360-1361.
8. Larry Hurtado, *"The Staurogram in Early Christian Manuscripts: the earliest visual reference to the crucified Jesus?" in Thomas J. Kraus, New Testament Manuscripts: Their Texts and Their World, Brill, pp. 223-224
Image of NWT depiction of Chi Rho Iota:

NWT Depiction of Chi Rho Iota

  • Could you elaborate on why you state that leg breaking would make sense on a cross but not on a stake?
    – Kris
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 13:15
  • @Kris Using a spear brings an immediate result; breaking the legs is slower and only works if the person is being crucified on a cross. Once the legs are broken the person can no longer "push up" to take a breath and will suffocate. Without breaking the legs, a person can prolong their life by using them to push up and take a breath. The point is breaking the legs only makes sense if crucifixion was on a cross. Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 14:31
  • Pushing up with legs is how a person nailed to a pole or stake would also enable breathing and breaking the legs of one attached with hands over his head on a single upright stake would hasten their death similarly
    – Kris
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 14:36
  • @Kris If the purpose is to hasten the cause of death, which is faster using a spear of breaking the legs? Breaking the legs was requested by the Jewish authorities as the means to bring about the deaths sooner. Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 14:45
  • Agreed but how does that prove the three were nailed to crosses rather than simple poles
    – Kris
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 14:53

In the context of the New Testament it is a cross, a testimony of first Christians leave no doubt.
This 5min video explains what "stauros" meant to the Christian community

  • Hello Kacper, welcome to BHSE, glad to have you with us. If you haven't already, please make sure to take our tour, to see how we are a little different from other sites you may know. Thanks! (hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/tour)
    – sara
    Commented Oct 6, 2019 at 7:08

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